It’s no secret that I have a Hollywood crush on JJ Abrams. I think he’s the smartest guy out there right now, building up his brand, taking on some of the biggest franchises in town, including my favorite franchise of all, Star Wars. He’s also exploring his original creative side via numerous TV shows and producing attachments. He created the kick-ass Alias, the best TV show of all time, Lost, and his company keeps snatching up all the cool sci-fi specs in town. Bad Robot even optioned Stephen King’s 11/22/63 recently. Abrams is starting to make guys like Spielberg (ironically, his idol) look like out of touch dinosaurs.
If a day ever comes where I spin Scriptshadow into a production company, I will meticulously study and copy every single move JJ Abrams has ever made, as a writer, as a creator, as a director, and as the head of a production company. The time may have passed me by for selling a script at age 25 that the biggest actor in the world signed up for (Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry). But as far as everything else, as far as how he runs his business, what projects he and his company attach himself to – yes, I’ll be trying to emulate that.
How does that tie into today? Well, I feel Abrams gave a great TED talk a few years ago, and the more I’ve learned about screenwriting since that time, the more I realize how powerful and important his talk, centering on one particular element of storytelling, was. In screenwriting, our job is basically to make sure that the reader wants to turn the page. It’s a simple yet, at the same time, impossibly difficult task. It takes practice and skill and talent to make someone want to read your script all the way through. If I’m being honest, 60% of the time I read a script, I don’t even want to turn the first page. I’m already sensing that the writer doesn’t know how to intrigue me, tempt me or bait me. The writing and story and situation are dry by the time I hit the middle of page 1.
Luckily for screenwriters, the reasons for this aren’t that the writer is “bad.” It’s almost always because they don’t know how to tell a story yet. They haven’t studied (or learned through trial and error) the basic tenements of dramaturgy, the ways in which you weave a tale so that the reader keeps needing more. For example, if I were to tell you a story about my day and started with the bumper-to-bumper traffic I endured on my way to work, then segued into not being able to find a parking spot because they were re-paving the lot, then hit you with the astounding tale of getting a “mean” look from my boss as I stumbled into the office five minutes late, there’s a good chance you’ve already nodded off. But if I started this same story with the proclamation, “Holy shit! The most insane thing happened to me at work today. You’ll never believe it!” then went through that exact same story, you’re not bored anymore. That’s because you’re now anticipating this “insane thing,” and you’re along for the ride until you hear it. It’s a very basic storytelling trick. And since most writers out there don’t study screenwriting or storytelling or creative writing or drama, they simply don’t know this, as well as all the other tricks we storytellers use to keep our audiences entertained. Which is why so many screenplays out there are so boring.
In JJ Abrams TED speech, he addresses one of the most powerful tools one can use to keep the audience interested – that of mystery. Now while mystery is a tool I’ve brought up before, it wasn’t until re-watching JJ’s speech that I realized how important it was. Without mysteries (small, medium, or large) there’s no real incentive for the reader to keep reading. If there’s not something they’re trying to figure out or find an answer to, then the story loses its mystique, its power.
The thing is, I’ve always had a hard time making this term categorizable, forcing me to say things like, “Just make sure you have a lot of mysteries in your script.” What I love that JJ’s done here is that he’s “tangiblized” the term of mystery by identifying it as the “mystery box.” This way it’s a “thing,” rather than a method. And once I saw it as that, I realized that you can more readily and methodically implement it into your story. Every story needs mystery boxes!
Typically, you start with one giant mystery box. This is the box that drives the overall story. Take The Hangover for example. “Where’s Doug” is the mystery box. There are certainly other reasons why The Hangover is so fun (it’s funny, the stakes are high, the characters are great), but the mystery box that’s always at the back of our mind – the one we won’t be satisfied until we get an answer to – is “Where the hell is Doug?”
Looking back at JJ’s body of work, you’ll find mystery boxes dominating all his movies and TV shows. With Lost, it’s “What is this island?” With Alias it was the mystery of the Rambaldi. In Mission Impossible 3, it was the “Rabbit’s Foot.” It’s no coincidence that JJ incorporates these mystery boxes into his plots. They hook you right away, and keep you around until they’re opened.
Once you have the big mystery box, it’s your job to set up a number of medium to smaller mystery boxes. You intersperse these throughout your script, so not only is the reader wondering what the hell’s in the big box, he wants to know what’s in these small boxes as well. While I see a lot of writers (either purposefully or on accident) incorporating giant mystery boxes to drive their story, I see far less small mystery boxes that get us through a scene or a sequence. For example, if a guy and a girl sit down at a diner and just start talking, it’s not nearly as interesting as if one of them starts the conversation with, “I have something important I want to tell you,” and then you withhold that important information until the middle or end of the scene. Mystery box!
Abrams uses Star Wars as an example of how to use mystery boxes, and it’s a good example. But you can pull out any popular story and find a fair share of mystery boxes packed inside. Gone Girl (which I reviewed yesterday) is jam packed with mystery boxes. Who kidnapped Amy? Why doesn’t Nick have an alibi for the time of the murder? What was he doing at the time? What’s this mysterious phone in his pocket he never answers? In fact, the book only begins falling apart when it runs out of mystery boxes at the end. There’s no more mystery and therefore no “presents” left to open. Amy shows up and starts living with Nick. They bicker a lot. We’ve lost interest.
So how do you incorporate mystery boxes into your own stories? Well, imagine an audience sitting down to watch your movie in a theater. Then imagine a giant shelf next to the screen. Think of this shelf as the “Shelf Of Teasing.” It’s where you’ll place those big fat mystery boxes. As the audience is watching their movie, they can’t help but keep looking over and seeing these irresistible mystery boxes taunting them. They need to keep watching until all of them are open.
Now there are few rules to these mystery boxes that you’ll want to follow. First, if you take away the giant mystery box, the one with the biggest question, make sure to replace it with another mystery box equally as interesting. In Lost, one of the big mystery boxes is this hatch that they find on the island. As soon as they show you what’s inside that mystery box, however, they replace it with another. There’s a computer in the bottom of the hatch where a series of mysterious numbers need to be entered every 8 minutes. Why? We don’t know. NEW MYSTERY BOX!
In addition to this, make sure each mystery box is as mysterious and interesting as possible. A boring mystery box is no different than no mystery box. For example, in Lost, if you would’ve replaced the hatch Mystery Box with, say, a mystery box asking why the room was yellow, the reader/audience won’t give a shit.
Finally, try to make sure there are ALWAYS BOXES on the “Shelf of Teasing.” They don’t need to all be amazing or huge. They just need to be enough to keep the audience curious. I’d venture you should have anywhere between 2-6 mystery boxes on that ledge at a time, depending on the kind of genre and story you’re telling (certain stories, like “The Sixth Sense” will depend more on Mystery Boxes than, say, “Silver Linings Playbook”).
Now before you go back and start incorporating mystery boxes into your script, watch a few of your favorite films and take note of how they use mystery boxes. Familiarize yourself with the process. And remember, always try to have one final lingering mystery box until the very end. As long as your audience is wondering how that final mystery is going to be answered, they will keep reading/watching. Good luck!
David Fincher swoops down to explore his next potential directing assignment. So I decided to check out the book.
Premise: Told from two different points of view, a man’s wife goes missing and he becomes the prime suspect.
About: 41 year old Gillian Flynn is a former Entertainment Weekly TV critic. She’s written three novels, with “Gone Girl” being her most recent. The bestseller got a bump a few months back when David Fincher expressed interest in adapting the book into a film. It’s unclear if he was just circling it or is now officially developing the screenplay.
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Details: Way more than 120 pages long
Why the hell am I reviewing a book? Well, first of all, to prove that I can read books! There’s this rumor going around that I can only read text in courier 12 point font, and that said font can never eclipse 4 lines of continuous text at a time. There have been stretches in my life where this is true. But when someone like David Fincher comes along and says he likes something, my book-reading juices start flowing. And this juice is not made from concentrate.
I can’t remember a single project Fincher’s been attached to that has been bad. Most of the time the script for the project is at least a [xx] worth the read and usually an [x] impressive. What I love about Fincher is that he’s one of the few guys out there willing to take chances. While directors like Jon Favreau and Ridley Scott are pretty much playing it safe, Fincher always wants to push the envelope. Gone Girl is no different. This book is a freaking wild ride. It does stuff I’ve never seen in a novel before.
However, let me warn you, this book is one giant spoiler. There’s a shit load going on and it has one of the best twists I’ve ever seen in a novel or movie. If you have any interest in reading this book or seeing this movie, do not read this review, because I’m going to get into all the spoilers. You’ve been warned.
The first 40 or so pages of Gone Girl are pretty boring. In them, we meet Nick and Amy Dunne, former Manhattanites who have to relocate to Nick’s home town in Missouri when he loses his job. Nick has since used Amy’s money (that comes from her wealthy parents, authors who made a fortune writing books about her childhood) to open a bar that only barely breaks even, and is one of several factors that have driven these two lovebirds apart.
You see, Nick and Amy used to really love each other. Like “love has no boundaries” love. The kind of love Double Rainbow guy would have for a Triple Rainbow. We know this because interspersed between Nick’s present, is Amy’s past, told in firsthand through her journal entries. It’s a devastating dichotomy as we cut back and forth between the wonderful love story Amy offers up and the cold clinical realization of their relationship now, told through Nick’s POV.
Just as we’re getting to know these two, something unthinkable happens. Someone breaks into Nick’s house while he’s away and takes Amy. The crime scene is violent and bloody and while there’s certainly a chance Amy’s still alive, it doesn’t look good. What also isn’t looking good is Nick. You see, Nick fell out of love with his wife a long time ago. And even though she’s been taken, there’s something deep inside of him that doesn’t really care. And therein lies the problem. When Nick goes on national TV to ask for his wife back, there isn’t a shred of emotion in his voice. To any and everyone who watches Nick, they have no doubt that he killed her.
Nick looks for solace from his twin sister, Go. She’s the only one who believes him. But even that’s looking shaky as Nick can’t give the cops an alibi for the time his wife was taken. The book then keeps cutting back and forth between Nick’s worsening nightmare and Amy’s love-sick journal. However, as the story continues, and the journal’s timeline catches up to the present day, we see that Nick has been hiding some secrets. He’s got some demons. And those demons are so bad that as early as last week, Amy went to buy a gun to protect herself from him. It’s looking really bad for Nick. Even we’re wondering if he did it.
And then comes the twist of all twists.
It was a lie. Every word we heard in Amy’s diary was a lie, right down to the personality we thought we knew for the last 250 pages. Amy isn’t bubbly and sweet and good and caring. She’s evil. She’s the definition of hate and bitterness. The diary was a plant, something she’d been working on for a year to lead up to this moment to work as the smoking gun that would send her husband to the chair for her murder. Why would anybody do something like this? For that you’ll have to read the novel. But let’s just say that Amy is the single most vindictive person on the planet.
Once we realize we’ve been scammed, we realign ourselves with Nick, hoping against hope that he can find Amy to prove he didn’t kill her. This task is getting harder by the second as Amy leaks sordid details of Nick’s past anonymously to the press, which means that the cops are probably going to pounce and arrest him soon. Only time will tell how or if Nick will get out of this. If he doesn’t find out how his girl got gone, he’s going to be gone himself.
Okay, I just have to say it. The twist here fucking ROCKED. I mean I was blown away. For 250 pages, we’re given a person, a backstory, a personality, someone we like and trust. We love Amy. To see the “mid-point twist,” then, where we realize it was all a setup? That she made up this version of herself and was really the complete opposite? It’d be like if your best friend of 20 years showed up one day and revealed that he was a completely different person. The way that twisted the story, realigned our sympathy, reversed the polarity of who we were rooting for? It was nothing short of genius.
And really, that’s where a lot of the genius occurs here – the way Flynn frustrates us with who we’re supposed to root for. She makes us hate Nick and love Amy at the outset. Then she shows us Nick’s point of view, and we like Nick and hate Amy. Then we find out something about Nick, and we hate him again, falling back in love with Amy. This constant “switching of allegiances” was masterful, and something we just don’t see in movies, probably because we don’t have enough time. Being yanked back and forth between these two is a big reason this book was able to stay so interesting for so long.
Also, Flynn does an amazing job keeping you guessing who the killer may be. At different points we wonder if Nick himself did it. If an old friend of Amy’s did it. If someone from town did it. At one point we even wonder if Nick’s twin sister is secretly in love with him and killed Amy to get her out of the picture. Flynn is really good at making you think you have things figured out, only to pull the rug out from under you.
What makes Gone Girl so difficult to read though, is that it destroys all hope you have in humanity and relationships. Amy is a vindictive bitch who will go so far as to stage her own murder to take down her husband. And Nick just doesn’t care about Amy anymore. These were two people who were madly in love. So to watch them become these hateful human beings, to see the severity of their relationship’s collapse, kind of makes you want to slit your wrists. It’s really depressing!
But despite snagging an elusive [xx] genius rating through the first half of the story, Gone Girl completely falls apart in its final act. Embarrassingly so. Running out of money and options to survive, Amy comes back to Nick. Amidst all the news coverage and the circus surrounding her disappearance, she just starts living with him again. Amy points out that because they’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, they can’t possibly be with anyone else. They may be miserable, but they’re stuck with each other. And that’s how the book ends, with both of these miserable people deciding to stay together and hate each other til the day they die.
I was so upset with this ending that I went online and researched Flynn to figure out why she would do such a thing. What I found made everything clear. Flynn, it turns out, doesn’t outline. She just writes whatever comes to her. WELL JESUS! NOW IT MAKES SENSE! She wrote a bunch of crazy shit then had no idea how to pay it off. This is EXACTLY how the last act felt. Like someone who had no idea how to end their story.
Which begs the question: How the hell does Fincher plan to adapt this? Why would you adapt something if the greatest thing about it is un-adaptable? We’re fooled by a journal, by a character writing directly to us, who it turns out is lying to us. How does one pull that off in a movie? We have to see Amy. We must show her writing these entries. And since her writing is a façade, something she’s making up, one would presume we’d pick up on her deception as it’s happening.
I suppose you could tell the first half in Amy’s voice over, with her journal entries read out loud over the life she’s describing, but I’m just not sure that would be as convincing (or even make sense). If they do decide to make this, though, I’d look into making the genius twist the ending, as opposed to the mid-point. You don’t really have time to go through an entire relationship and then an entire aftermath of the twist anyway, in a film. This way you’d also eliminate that dreadful ending. That would be really cool if they figured it out, but it will be a challenge.
What an unforgettable reading experience “Gone Girl” was. It has amazing highs and devastating lows. It has “holy shit” twists and an indefensible climax. It’s such an imperfect piece of art, it’s hard to categorize. But I’m not surprised Fincher became interested. It’s so dark and different. If there’s anyone who can figure it out, it’s probably him.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Know your ending before you start your story, if possible. You can come up with all the cool twists and turns in the world, but if you can’t bring everything together in the end, it won’t matter.
Ben Stiller may be pulling in 15 million a movie these days. But there was a time when he was struggling to make a name for himself. In fact, Stiller had been in a string of commercially unsuccessful movies and TV shows, only recently making a name for himself in 1998 with “There’s Something About Marry.” “Meet the Parents,” then, established him as a legitimate comedic force. Now what most people don’t know, is that “Meet The Parents” is actually a remake of a 70+ minute indie film from 1992 that nobody saw. It starred, of all people, Emo Phillips, that bizarre guy with the extreme bowl cut who was famous for like 56 minutes. The film played the festival circuit and actually earned a few fans from critics. Universal reluctantly optioned the remake rights and only after Jim Carrey and Steven Spielberg showed interest (isn’t it Spielberg’s job to show interest in everything at least once?) did the studio really start to push it, eventually casting, of course, Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro. Another little known factoid is that DeNiro came up with the famous lie detector test scene all on his own.
1) Set up the stakes for your main character before the journey begins – One of the reasons Meet The Parents works so well is because it establishes the stakes for Greg (Ben Stiller) right away. We see Greg trying out his proposal on one of his patients. We then see him go through an elaborate failed proposal to his girlfriend, Pam. Through these scenes, we see that getting this girl’s hand means everything to him (high stakes!). If we don’t know how much achieving the goal means to our character, we won’t care if he achieves it or not. So establish those stakes!
2) Once you establish the goal, you can introduce the main obstacle – The goal here is Greg trying to win Pam’s hand in marriage. Now obviously, if your character succeeds in achieving his goal, your movie is over. So before they can achieve it, you must hurry and introduce the main obstacle. The obstacle in this case is Pam’s father, Jack. Pam makes it clear that she can’t marry anyone her father doesn’t approve of. Now that we have the main obstacle, something that will repeatedly prevent our character from achieving his goal, we have ourselves a movie.
3) Clever over Big – In the original script, the Greg proposal scene had him taking Pam to a baseball game and proposing to her via plane pulling a “Will You Marry Me” sign. Not only has the ball game thing been done before, but it was far too expensive to shoot. So they re-wrote the scene to happen outside of Pam’s work (she’s a kindergarten teacher). While Greg distracts Pam, her students hold letters that spell “Will You Marry Me?” behind them. Of course, all the letters are in the wrong order, so Greg must guide them into their spots with his eyes without Pam noticing. Before they can finish, Pam gets a call from her father that negates the proposal. The point here is, everybody always thinks of the big giant easy scene – even the professionals. Ignore the big. Try to do something clever instead. It always ends up better.
4) In comedies, keep having your characters fail – That’s all comedies are if you think about it. You keep setting these little goals up, then continue to have your character fail at them. Greg must make a great first impression on Jack when he and Pam arrive. He fails. Greg has to win over Jack at the big dinner scene. He fails. Greg has to win the volleyball game to prove his toughness in front of Jack. He fails. Greg has to find Jack’s cat that he lost. He fails. In comedies, just keep having goal after goal come up, and have your character fail again and again, until they finally come through in the end.
5) Design your other characters with your main character in mind – When you design your supporting characters, they shouldn’t be designed randomly, but rather as a way to affect or conflict with your protagonist. For example, Greg is a nurse. When he gets to Pam’s, Pam’s sister is celebrating her recent engagement to her longtime boyfriend, Bob. Now, what would you have Bob be? A race car driver maybe? A lawyer? A scientist? Sure, I mean any one of those could work. But the writers make him a DOCTOR, because they know it will make Greg (who’s a nurse) look even worse in the eyes of Jack.
6) Always look to go against type in comedies – Most comedy specs I read go with the obvious. So for the father our main character has to win over, they’d make him a military man with a giant dog. Not here. Jack is a botanist with a Persian cat. Go against type go against type go against type!
7) Torture your main character in a comedy whenever and wherever possible – It’s a comedy. So have fun torturing your main character. At the airport, the TSA forces Jack to check his bag, and of course they lose his bag. This leaves him without clothes, forcing him to have to wear Pam’s brother’s clothes. Now since it’s our job as writers to torture our protagonists, we can’t just give him normal clothes. Nope, the writers make Pam’s brother a younger hip-hop druggie type. Therefore Greg ends up having to wear these ridiculous oversized hip-hop clothes. We see it again later in the water volleyball game where Greg is forced to wear a tiny speedo. Torture your characters people!
8) Add twists to your comedies – Writers assume that since comedies are all about the laughs, they don’t need to add any twists or turns. The assumption is that you save those for the thrillers and the sci-fi specs. The thing is, a comedy is still a story, and every story needs a few surprises along the way to keep the audience guessing. In the original draft for “Meet The Parents,” Jack’s CIA background is revealed right away. The writers realized that doing so was kind of boring, and therefore pushed the reveal back and made it a surprise, with Jack initially pretending to be a botanist.
9) Combine scenes for Christ’s sake! – Writers always act shocked or upset or confused when I tell them they need to combine two average scenes into one super scene in order to speed up their story. Combining scenes ia great option to deleting them altogether because you get to keep all the stuff you like instead of losing it altogether. So in the original “Meet The Parents” draft, we had the big dinner scene (“I have nipples Greg. Can you milk me?”) and then a game of scrabble, where Greg accidentally pops the cork that destroys the bottle holding Jack’s mother’s ashes. The scrabble scene was extremely weak and redundant, so they just combined it into the dinner scene. Which scenes can you combine in your script?
10) When limited to one location, the easiest way to change up the plot is to bring in new characters – When you’re writing a thriller or an adventure script or, really, any script where your character is out in the world doing shit, it’s easy to spice things up. You just move to a new location with a new set of goals, stakes, and urgency. But when you’re in a single location, you obviously can’t do that. Therefore, you need to find other ways to keep the script interesting. The Greg, Pam, Jack, and Dina stuff is great. But if we’re ONLY with those four inside this house the entire script, we’re going to get bored. The easiest way to spice things up then, is to bring in new characters. They become the change. Here, it’s Debbie (Pam’s sis) and Bob (her fiancé) who pop in and start adding more pressure to the situation (with Bob being Jack’s ideal son-in-law). Immediately we feel a new energy in the script, and the story is reignited.
These are 10 tips from the movie “Meet The Parents.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!
Former superstar screenwriter Shane Black takes over one of Hollywood’s bigger franchises. How does he do?
Okay, just so everyone knows, I did not send out the newsletter last week. So you haven’t been kicked off. I was up in Portland for my brother’s wedding. I’ll tell ya. Portland is an interesting place. But I’ll have to save that story for another time. As for now, let’s get Scriptshadow back on schedule.
Premise: (from IMDB) When Tony Stark’s world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution.
About: Two writers are credited with Iron Man 3 – the director, Shane Black, and British writer Drew Pearce. Shane Black’s career is well-documented, as he burst onto the scene with his then innovative spec, Lethal Weapon, then went on to sell several specs for 7 figures. He disappeared for awhile, came back with his directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (starring Robert Downey Jr.), which led to a friendship that eventually resulted in Downey Jr. asking him to direct Iron Man 3. The more unknown story is Drew Pearce, who was basically a nobody (in America at least) who all of a sudden started getting hired to write some of the biggest movies in Hollywood (outside of Iron Man 3, he also did a rewrite on Pacific Rim, and was hired to write Sherlock Holmes 3). This all came about because Pearce wrote a show back in the U.K. about super heroes in their off-duty hours.
Writers: Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Details: 130 minutes
Let’s be honest. Iron Man 2 wasn’t very good. However, a big reason for that was they rushed it into production after the success of the first movie. John Favreau, the director, saw his world spinning out of control as he fought to get one more year to work on the script. Marvel wanted moolah right away though so Favreau lost that battle. But yeah, everything wrong with that movie can be attributed to a really sloppy, badly written screenplay.
Since Iron Man had to go fight with the Avengers last summer, Iron Man 3 had a little more time to get its script in order. Not only that, but it had longtime screenwriting vet Shane Black taking over directing duties. This is what really intrigued me. They had a real live screenwriter taking over the helming position. So the idea was: Good screenwriter + more time = good movie.
That’s the IDEA of course. The problem is that most people in Hollywood flunked math. And I’m bummed to say that even under the most algebraic rationale, Iron Man 3 is only marginally better than the second film. Look, I can’t pretend to know what it’s like taking over a franchise film, being hounded by numerous execs from multiple studios and production companies, all with their own ideas and agendas. It’s a dance you only learn by going through it, something only the luckiest of us will be able to experience. But you’d think with a movie like Iron Man 3, a proven franchise, that it’s kind of a fail-safe deal. I’m pretty sure you could film Robert Downey Jr. strutting around Burbank doing a Jay Leno impersonation for two hours and it’d make 400 million bucks. Since that’s the case, why not just let the writer do his thing? Let’s get a good screenplay in here! Of course, for all I know, Shane Black had all the story control in the world. Whatever the case, Iron Man 3 became a strange movie-going experience that was part investigation, part super hero film, and part sit-com.
Iron Man 3 starts off with a flashback, to 1999, where Tony Stark rejects an offer from a crippled man named Aldrich Killian to join his company. Jump to the present, and Aldrich is no longer crippled, thanks to his company’s advancements in neural re-stimulators or some such. But in order to take the next step with his company, he still needs funding. And no one has more funding than Tony Stark. Unfortunately for Aldrich, Stark’s company rejects him once again, even with his shiny new smile.
Across the pond, the world has a bunch of new problems they gotta deal with, as there’s a new terrorist on the loose named “The Mandarin.” The Mandarin is blowing up people left and right and when one of those people ends up being Tony Stark’s bodyguard, Stark gets pissed. He advertises an open challenge to the Mandarin to come face him like a man, even giving out his address! Well the Mandarin comes all right, with lots of helicopters and missiles, destroying Stark’s sprawling Oceanside mansion.
Tony barely survives, then flies to Tennessee (I think) where one of the first Mandarin attacks happened. He starts piecing together how the Mandarin did this, acquiring the help of a 10 year old local boy named Harley. He then heads to Miami to confront the Mandarin while Harley stays back and works on repairing his Iron Man suit (no, I am not making that up – a ten year old boy repairs one of the most complicated pieces of machinery on the planet).
Eventually (spoiler), we find out that The Mandarin, our big bad terrorist, is just an out of work homeless alcoholic actor hired by Aldrich to scare the world so that he can take it over or something. It’s all a lead-up to what will be an assassination attempt on the president on Air Force 1, which Tony Stark will have to regroup and get back into his Iron Man suit to prevent.
If I’m being honest, Iron Man 3 felt like it was being written as it went along. I haven’t seen an opening that was that sloppily written for a major summer movie in a long time. I don’t know exactly what it was. The clunky voice over, the funky flashback, but probably the biggest thing was the tone. Iron Man has always been big on humor, but here they took it overboard. It was so overtly goofy, with Stark joking about having sex with a botanist and some slapstick comedy between Stark and his bodyguard – the tone was no different than a CBS sit-com. It didn’t even feel like the scenes were written. It was like the actors were given free reign to say or do whatever they wanted. It really put me off from the outset.
Then we get this strange scene where Pepper (Stark’s assistant/gf) comes home and starts flirting with Stark in his Iron Man suit, only for us to find out that Stark’s not in his suit. The suit is standing in for him so he can work out downstairs. I had no idea what the point of this scene was but I’m guessing it was to show that Stark was more concerned with his work than Pepper? Either way, it was so goofy to the point of being bizarre. Even Avengers, which had to balance the tone of several different franchises and be friendly to just about every demographic, didn’t have nearly as goofy a tone as this. At times, it felt like Nickelodeon was producing this thing.
After Stark nearly dies in the attack on his house, he falls asleep in his suit (??) while his suit takes him to a place he’d previously ruminated might be connected with the Mandarin. This is why the script felt made up as it went along. Our main character falling asleep in a suit and when he wakes up he’s magically in the town that starts his investigation?? One of the most underrated parts of writing is seamlessly moving your character from plot point to plot point. The idea is to make it invisible. If your audience is questioning how and why we got from one place to another, you’re not doing your job.
But the moment where I really gave up on Iron Man was when The Mandarin turned into this goofy bumbling homeless actor. That was one level of goofy too deep for me. I mean I thought I was watching a super hero movie here. Why does it feel like an episode of Malcom In The Middle? And I haven’t even brought up the kid, which felt like the studio note of all studio notes (we need a 10 year old kid in this to bring in all the 10 year old kids!). Once we have 10 year olds repairing nuclear suits, all logic is thrown out the window. The funny thing was, despite the fact that he was awkwardly and inorganically crammed into the story, the actor playing the kid was the best thing about the movie. Whenever Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau were on screen together, all you saw was Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau, the actors, trying to outdo each other improv-battle style. This kid and Downey actually made me believe Downey Jr. was Tony Stark, and this kid was Harley. It was so good, in fact, it made it clear how much the rest of the movie wasn’t working.
Iron Man 3 may be the most un-super-hero super hero movie of the last decade. Most of the movie had Stark out of his Iron Man suit off in a little town investigating a murder of the likes you’d see in a tiny little indie flick. To strip the super hero elements out of such a huge film was a daring move by Black – I have to give him props for taking that chance. But ultimately, there were too many goofy elements wrapped in too sloppy of a screenplay to pay this risk off. Iron Man 3 was not as bad as Iron Man 2. But it felt more like friends goofing around than an honest-to-goodness kickass superhero film.
[ ] what the hell did I just see?
[x] don’t spend your money on this
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Lifelong fatal flaws are always preferable to recent fatal flaws. A well-executed character change is one of the most rewarding experiences movies have to offer. For example, if your hero’s always been closed off emotionally, we like to see him finally open up in the end. The problem with sequels is that your character has likely already overcome that flaw in the first film. This often results in writers needing to come up with more recent fatal flaws to drive the sequels. In Iron Man 3, it’s Tony Stark’s anxiety disorder. Because it’s such a recent thing, it doesn’t feel nearly as important, which is why whenever it comes up, we don’t really care. I’m not saying I know how to solve that particular issue in Iron Man 3. But it’s a good reminder that if you’re going to give your hero a fatal flaw, it should be something he’s been battling all or most of his life, not something that’s only recently come up.
Well, I thought I could do it all– get through a bazillion consults, write up a review, put together a newsletter– but shockingly, I’m just a mere mortal.
Instead of a newsletter this week, and in place of a regular post, I’m posting five new amateur scripts for an extended Amateur Offerings Weekend slate. Hopefully next week I’ll return to being the multi-tasking superhero I usually am. Watch out, Iron Man!
This is your chance to discuss the week’s amateur scripts, offered originally in the Scriptshadow newsletter. The primary goal for this discussion is to find out which script(s) is the best candidate for a future Amateur Friday review. The secondary goal is to keep things positive in the comments with constructive criticism.
Below are the scripts up for review, along with the download links. Want to receive the scripts early? Head over to the Contact page, e-mail us, and “Opt In” to the newsletter.
TITLE: Going Postal
LOGLINE: Pink-slipped, a mailman and his eccentric allies embark on a quixotic quest to prove how much he and the mail still matter.
LOGLINE: A cyborg and a group of unruly misfits must embark on a journey across a war-torn America in an attempt to stop a super computer and its army of android soldiers.
TITLE: The Girl
LOGLINE: Sam’s life is going nowhere fast, but when he meets his fantasy girl he is dragged into his town’s underworld of monsters and goons.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I’ve worked as a Sound Designer/Supervisor on over 50 games and films (Aeon Flux, The Matrix sequels, etc.) Basically my job is to help tell a story. Especially as an audio director on video games where I am responsible for music and speech as well. Having worked on projects from concept to finish I understand the iterative process and writing is a way for me to learn essential story telling techniques. I crave the feedback I might get from even being considered for the amateur offerings.
GENRE: Contemporary supernatural dark comedy.
LOGLINE: When teenage witches in a small Midwestern town entice the new girl to join their elite clique, the question needs to be asked – What if she’s not interested?
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Because it’s a quick, breezy read. And because it’s ‘Heathers’ meets ‘Mean Girls’ meets ‘Juno’ meets ‘The Craft’ meets ‘Abracadabra.’